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State of the media in Zim

BELOW is an excerpt from the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa)-Zimbabwe Chapter State of Media 2020 report:

Introduction

The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), together with the Public Order and Security Act (Posa), enacted in 2002, were among some of the most repressive laws used to suppress media freedom and free speech in Zimbabwe.

Scores and scores of journalists were arrested under Aippa, while newspapers such as the Daily News and the Tribune were closed under this law which at that time was used as the weapon of choice against dissenting voices and media workers.

However, with the coming into being of the 2013 Constitution, with its highly acclaimed Bill of Rights and explicit provisions on citizens’ right to access to information, it became increasingly clear that Aippa was anathema to the enjoyment of the very same right it purported to protect.

This point was driven home under Section 62 of the 2013 Constitution (on access to information), that new legislation should be enacted to give effect to the enjoyment of that right, thus paving way for the repealing of Aippa.

It is in that regard that the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act in July 2020, as part of the unbundling of Aippa, was welcomed as one of the progressive steps taken by the government of Zimbabwe towards the alignment of the country’s laws with the Constitution.

During the year under review, and as the country forged ahead with the media policy and law reform processes, another significant milestone was the licensing of the country’s first ever ‘privately owned’ television stations, and community radio stations.

However, these otherwise positive outcomes on the media reforms front were marred by the government’s seeming determination to amend the 2013 Constitution prior to the alignment of several laws that are not in sync with the country’s supreme law enacted in 2013.

This came in the wake of the conclusion of the public hearings on the Constitution Amendment No.2 Bill. The bill gazetted on January 17, 2020, is made up of 27 sections that propose to amend no less than 30 sections of the constitution.

The proposed amendments follow the first amendment to the 2013 Constitution which gave the President powers to unilaterally appoint the chief justice, deputy chief justice and Judge president of the High Court.

This tampering with the constitution at a time when several laws, which have an impact on the enjoyment of the rights enshrined in Zimbabwe’s Bill of Rights, is widely viewed as being aimed at centralising the President’s powers, which vitiates against the principle of separation of powers to allow for democratic checks and balances in the spirit of good governance and accountability.

Another dent, which cast further aspersions on the government’s commitment to uphold and respect constitutionally guaranteed rights, was the spike in the harassment, arrests and assaults of journalists, human rights activists and members of opposition political parties, despite promises by the post-2017 and post-2018 elections Zanu PF government, to break with the ills of the era of the late former President Robert Mugabe.

For instance, journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested twice during the course of the year on two separate charges and denied bail at the Magistrates Courts, in the process enduring long detention periods at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. For each of the separate charges, Chi’nono only managed to secure his freedom after being granted bail by the High Court.

It is against these retrogressive developments, that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, noted in a report during the year under review, that Zimbabwe was suffering from political polarisation and poor governance.

The special rapporteur noted then, that civic space continued to deteriorate, re-establishing an environment of fear and persecution.

Media Environment

The media operating environment during the period under review is contextualised against developments on the media law reform process, in terms of progress or lack thereof, as well as the enjoyment of the right to media freedom, freedom of expression, and ultimately citizens’ right to access to information.

Regrettably, the situation is still far from the ideal in terms of respect for media freedom, which is a critical component in fostering unhindered citizens’ participation in democratic processes for accountable and transparency governance.

According to Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Day Index, Zimbabwe was positioned at 126 out of 180 countries ranked globally. This ranking should be a sobering and reflective moment for the Zimbabwe government considering that other Southern Africa Development Community countries such as Namibia, South Africa and Botswana were ranked at 23, 31 and 39, respectively.

During the year under review, a total of 52 journalists and media workers (among them, newspaper vendors and media students), were either arrested, assaulted or harassed, while conducting their lawful professional duties.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Commissioner Jamesina King, wrote to President Emmerson Mnangagwa regarding the arrest and detention of Chin’ono.

Speaking during the 67th Ordinary Session of the ACHPR, held virtually, Commissioner King said she wrote the letter to Mnangagwa on October 15, 2020.

“Journalists and other media practitioners play an important role . . . they provide the public with the necessary information to develop an opinion and make informed decisions,” King said.

“However, despite their indispensable role in society, journalists are often targets of threats, intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, detentions, and disappearances, in addition to physical attacks, which have sometimes resulted in murder.”

Meanwhile, these violations resulted in Misa Zimbabwe successfully filing for a High Court order barring the police and any other state security agents from arresting, detaining or interfering with the work of journalists.

In a related development, and back-to-back with that application, Misa Zimbabwe, filed yet another successful application with the High Court compelling the Ministry of Health and Child Care and the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, to promote citizens’ access to information pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic. Having to resort to court applications to enforce constitutionally guaranteed rights, therefore speaks volumes about the government’s sincerity in entrenching the pillars of democracy and commitment to uphold the rights to media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information as provided for by Sections 61 and 62 of the Constitution, let alone other rights in the Bill of Rights.

Commendably, the Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill passed through the House of Assembly and the Senate, after protracted and robust debate by parliamentarians which culminated in concessions by the government to factor in the agreed positions during key stakeholder engagements.

For instance, Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs minister Ziyambi Ziyambi, who was steering the Bill on behalf of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services minister Monica Mutsvangwa conceded that there was no harm in removing the clause that allowed the police to assist in media investigations.

Among the other agreed positions, was the need for the bill to recognise the need for co-regulation of the media. This should then set the course  for the proposed Zimbabwe Media Practitioners Bill which, if enacted into law, will foster media accountability and professionalism through a media co-regulatory mechanism  together with the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC).

Media stakeholders under the auspices of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ), have since come up with the Draft Zimbabwe Media Practitioners Bill, which was widely welcomed by the media sector during nationwide consultative meetings on the proposed law.

 Media sustainability

Zimbabwe’s media has not been spared the viability challenges that the sector is facing globally.

This is in terms of the media’s sustainability and viability due to the untenable socio-economic situation which is hurting businesses in the wake of declining revenue streams and incomes. This is ominous given the role the media plays in providing critical information to the public that assists in making informed decisions. This is even more critical at a time when the country has put in place measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Suffice to say, the nation would be plunged into darkness if the media collapses, dealing a severe blow to government’s efforts in combating the Covid-19 pandemic and the country’s socio-economic well-being and democratic aspirations.

It is with this in mind, that Misa Zimbabwe chairperson Golden Maunganidze wrote to Mutsvangwa, pleading with government to seriously consider coming up with a Media Sustainability Bailout Rescue Package.

This can be in the form of tax or duty exemptions and moratoriums (over a realistically determined period), on newsprint and other mass media production and distribution equipment. The government should also consider reducing the registration and licensing fees for media houses, as well as  doing away with some of the punitive duplicitous levies and fees charged in terms of the country’s regulatory framework.

These inhibitive fees are paid to ZMC, Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, Transmedia Corporation, Zimbabwe Music Rights Association and National Arts Council, over and above the taxes due to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority.

A revolving fund, which is administered independently, can also be established in that regard.

Conclusion

While Misa Zimbabwe welcomes the Ministry of Information’s open door policy and engagements with media stakeholders in its quest to break with the past, the ultimate objective and outcome should be that of entrenching the pillars of democracy as pledged by President Emmerson Mnangangwa.

The government should thus live up to the letter and spirit of the constitution through genuine and democratic media law and policy reforms in line with regional and international instruments it is state party to.

In addition, the government should ensure that its proposed cyber security regulations are informed by the constitution, the revised principles of the ACHPR Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information and the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, among other regional and continental instruments.

The government should unequivocally condemn media freedom violations and take all necessary steps to ensure the safety and security of journalists by bringing the culprits to book in defence of media freedom, and ultimately, citizens’ right to free expression and access to information.

Misa, Zimbabwe.

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